REVIEW: Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning – UK premiere at Kings Place

The London Contemporary Orchestra performing
Tower of Meaning.
Photo credit: Daniel Halford

Peter Zummo, Bill Ruyle, London Contemporary Orchestra with Oliver Coates – Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning (UK premiere) 
(Kings Place, 15th January 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

Arthur Russell’s untimely death in 1992 took away a restless talent with an enduring fascination. The cellist, composer and avant-disco producer is mostly known for the haunting cello and electronics of the album World of Echo, but each year more music surfaces from his bags of master tapes, and his stock grows.

Last year saw the re-release of his little-known album for string ensemble, Tower of Meaning. Two of Arthur Russell’s former collaborators Peter Zummo and Bill Ruyle have now transcribed the music from the record and arranged it for live performance. January 2017 saw its UK debut by the London Contemporary Orchestra at Kings Place, presented in the round with a young fairly hip audience sat on the floor. The programme included two other UK premieres that set the scene, as well as a very recent work from another talent who straddles avant-garde, pop and classical worlds.

Mica Levi’s astonishing string quartet You Belong To Me (2016) shows the avant-pop singer-songwriter’s growing stature as a composer, as also demonstrated in her award-winning score for creepy sci-fi movie Under the Skin and, currently in cinemas, Jackie. From the opening trills and chromatic flourishes, through episodes of dense riffing, this richly textured and colourfully ornamented 15-minute piece would be the highlight of any concert. At its apogee, cellist Oliver Coates’ grinding double-stops were so powerful, I thought the cello must have a hidden amp.

Bill Ruyle performing Wolff Tones E-Tude.
Photo credit: Emily Moore

Mary Jane Leach’s Wolff Tones E-Tudes (2004) is a process-based open-form composition in six sections. Christian Wolff’s Exercises were a formative influence on Ruyle, Zummo and Russell. ‘Wolf tones’ are unintended, often ‘unpleasant’, resonances inherent in some instruments, especially strings. The seven instruments (including a piano with 3 e-bows resonating drones) repeat phrases throughout each section before moving on. The interplay of the ensemble in performance is a compositional strategy. Similarly, Julius Eastman’s Joy Boy (1974) requires a markedly communal approach to realisation.

Bill Ruyle conducting Tower of Meaning.
Photo credit: Emily Moore

The compositional integrity of the pieces that comprise the forty-minute instrumental work Tower of Meaning might surprise those used to the endearingly open-ended experimentation of World Of Echo, where Russell’s vocals are tentative, teetering on the melodic and almost whispered, suggested. Tower of Meaning shares the oneiric otherworldliness that makes Arthur Russell’s work across disparate forms from experimental disco to his solo cello improvisations so teasingly appealing.

The music was originally intended for a production of Euripides’ Medea and in several sections the blocky harmony and stately rhythmic pulse strongly resemble early music. Its stepwise courtliness derives from chamber music and incidental stage music rather than any symphonic ambition.

Peter Zummo.
Photo credit: Emily Moore

The music emerges in waves, lapping regularly and inexorably on the shores of our sadness. Aside from the posthumous 2008 documentary Wild Combination, the films haven’t really been made yet that Arthur Russell’s music would soundtrack. It’s filmic as befits the cross-influence of Philip Glass, whose label released 320 copies of the original album – before indecorously folding.

Presenting Tower of Meaning was a similar enterprise to Bang On A Can’s transcription of Music for Airports, which scored Eno’s intricate tape-cut loops for live ensemble performance. Bill Ruyle had scores for the work but found that the recording was a perfect fourth out. Russell had varispeeded the tape. Recreating the low notes of the recording necessitated certain additions and substitutions – viola for violin, English horns for oboes, double bass for cello. This timbrally enriches the texture, and a re-recording of the album by the ensemble would be welcome. In the meantime, the performance was broadcast on NTS Live (link below) and filmed. A welcome rediscovery, Tower of Meaning illuminates Arthur Russell’s softly glowing reputation.

LINK: Recording of concert on NTS Live

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